Explore the Eolian Islands and Sicily's Natural Beauty

Explore the Eolian Islands and Sicily's Natural Beauty

Just the term "Sicily" conjures up ideas of an exotic island with a secret and an interesting history. For some time now, I've wanted to visit Italy, and as I was considering which location to visit, Sicily sprang into my head. I expected this island to have an interesting history, a diverse culture, stunning scenery, and a large range of activities. Traveling to places like Havana and Cuernavaca, Mexico, for my previous language study excursions not only improved my proficiency in Spanish but also enabled me to experience the local culture firsthand while studying the language.

For my next trip to Sicily, I decided to focus on studying Italian, and I was able to identify two language schools on the island that would both provide a unique experience and a unique way to see the island. I was determined to learn as much Italian as possible in the three weeks I had in Sicily, despite my lack of preparation other than reading an Italian grammar textbook.

I spent the first eight days of my trip at Taormina, a beautiful mountaintop town on Sicily's eastern coast that is most known for its historic Greco-Roman Theatre. Beautiful architecture, winding lanes, and sweeping vistas of Mount Etna and the Mediterranean make this town one of the most photogenic in the world.

The Babilonia Language School, where I would spend a week studying Italian and getting to know the culture of Sicily, welcomed me soon after I arrived. The Sciglio family has owned and run a 13-room privately owned hotel for more than 50 years.

Salvatore Sciglio works with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sciglio, who are both in their mid-eighties and still going strong. More about the hotel's history and family participation was revealed to me in an interview. The Babilonia language school organized my first guided trip on the second day: a climb to the old Sicilian town of Castelmola, followed by an opportunity to sample Sicilian cuisine at a nearby restaurant.

Visiting the historic city of Siracusa and the stunning coastline east of Taormina, including Mazzaro and Isola Bella, was planned for my first weekend in Sicily, and it didn't disappoint. First, we took a placement exam, and then we had our first class, which featured some unconventional but quite successful teaching approaches. I decided to take advantage of May Day, an Italian national holiday and Labor Day weekend, and hire a vehicle to drive up to Mount Etna, Europe's tallest volcano, which had just erupted the night before.

The next day, I returned to Babilonia Language School, where the director, Alessandro, gave me a private history lecture on Sicily, including the beginnings of the Mafia, a well-known Sicilian institution. The language school organized a special cookery session for me that night. I was going to learn how to make an authentic Italian multi-course feast from scratch using locally sourced products. Of course, I'd get to sample the completed products and have supper with other language students and the Ferrari family later, too.

On the second day of my trip, I visited a local ceramic painting artist since Babilonia also provides pottery decorating workshops, in addition to hiking and biking. I learnt about Sicilian ceramic painting skills while perched on the rooftop terrace of a Taormina hotel with a great view of a historic palace right near Mount Etna. Toward the end of the day, I went on another Mount Etna trek with a group of friends. After that, we went to a vineyard and had a great meal.

Then, on my last day in the picturesque town of Taormina, I said my final goodbyes to the staff at Babilonia and to my fellow students, with whom I had become close. My time in Taormina was wonderful, with the possible exception of the rainy weather. The language instruction, the intriguing excursions and events, and the opportunity to engage with my foreign classmates were all wonderful. After spending so much time in Taormina, it was hard for me to leave.

As for my next experience, I boarded the train to Milazzo, on Sicily's northeastern coast, where Laboratorio Linguistico, an Italian language school situated in Milazzo, was hosting a seven-day boat excursion through the stunning Eolian Islands. Our first stop was Lipari, the biggest of the Eolian Islands and a breathtakingly beautiful site, where I met some of my six shipmates, all of whom were very kind people.

Francesco, our licensed captain and one of our two on-board language instructors, was also the co-owner of the language school and a certified captain. Three of us took a driving excursion to the island of Salina, which is next to Lipari, to view the local towns and the home where "Il Postino" was shot. Our first experience with Laboratorio Lingustico's language instruction was a backyard patio class in Italian. Because our second instructor and school co-owner, Francesco and Franco, spoke exclusively Italian with us during the sailing vacation, we were completely immersed in the language. Our second day on the boat came to a close with a Sicilian seafood feast.

On the third day of our vacation, we set off for Stromboli, an active volcano. The streets of Stromboli are so narrow that conventional automobiles are unable to navigate them. This is why the local "carabinieri" (Italian police officers) had to use golf carts to get about town.

We arrived late and moored in a harbor off the island of Stromboli after a tumultuous late-night trip from Stromboli to Panarea. First, we had a language class on the outside patio of a pub in Panarea, where the sun was shining and the flowers were blooming. For amateur photographers like me, Panarea was a wonderful place to visit.

After a busy day on the water, we made our way back to Lipari, where we had a delicious alfresco dinner in the town center. A driving tour of the island the next day led us to our next destination: Vulcano Island, which is also home to an active volcano. At night, our shipmates, Franco and Agnieszka, serenaded us on the rear of the boat with their passionate renditions of traditional Italian songs after a sumptuous on-board meal. These were amazing moments that I will treasure forever.

On our penultimate day at sea, we went up to Vulcano's active crater, the "Gran Cratere." Indicators of geological activity were brightly colored rocks and heavy sulfurous clouds. The view of the other six Eolian Islands from the summit was just stunning. In the end, we were forced to say farewell to the Eolian Islands and begin the long journey back to Milazzo, Italy.

My seven-day sailing excursion was about to come to a close when one of my shipmates yelled, "DOLPHINS!!!" Sure enough, four of these lively marine animals were following our sailboat, leaping in and out of the water and having a good time with us. A fishing line we had been running behind our boat ended up bringing in three tuna. Nonetheless, the next sight of decapitation and evisceration did not sit well with me.

Upon our arrival at Capo di Milazzo, we had yet another traditional Sicilian feast to commemorate the successful completion of our magnificent sailing adventure, as well as the birthday of one of my shipmates. The next day, we were able to do some washing and lounge on our balcony in our five-bedroom apartment, which was conveniently situated above the Laboratorio Linguistico Language School. Milazzo's fortress goes back more than a millennium, and our instructor, Franco, led us on a tour of the city.

To say goodbye to Claudia, I took a two-hour train trip from Milazzo to the historic village of Cefalu, where I spent my last Sunday in Sicily. The medieval heart of the city, the massive Norman cathedral, and the remnants of an old castle perched on a cliff overlooking the town left me with a trove of vivid memories I cherish to this day. I was down to my last two days in Sicily.

After visiting Laboratorio Linguistico's Milazzo headquarters, I went on a field trip with my two Italian professors, Francesco and Franco, to the nearby Nebrodi Mountains. It was from here that we were able to see Mount Etna and the enigmatic Rocks of Agrimusco. Our next stop was the Sicilian village of Montalbano Elicona, a little hamlet that has been mostly undisturbed by tourists. Locals gather in the churchyard to discuss current events, and this was my first opportunity to photograph them.

In Sicily, it was time to say goodbye to the wonderful crew at Laboratorio Linguistico and ride the bus to Messina. From there, I'd catch a flight to Catania in the early morning. After arriving in the late afternoon, I was able to visit this Sicilian city, the second-largest in the country, and get ready for my return trip.

There's no better time to travel to Sicily than late spring, around April or May, when everything is still blooming and visitors aren't yet here till June, July, or August, as I discovered on my trip. Sicily has stayed remarkably real and devoid of many of the hallmarks of mass tourism that degrade other Mediterranean shores.

Even though Taormina and the Eolian Islands are beautiful places to visit, Sicily's hinterland has a lot to offer as well. Incredibly rich in history, architecture, art, and natural splendor, this region has something for everyone. In addition, this location is a must-visit for seafood enthusiasts.

At Babilonia and the Laboratorio Linguistico, I had a great time learning a new language. After three weeks in Italy, I had reached an intermediate level and was able to communicate well with Italians back home.

People were wonderful; the personnel at both language schools were really helpful and knowledgable, and the opportunity to meet with students from all over the world was a true delight. Some deep personal relationships were formed amongst our crew aboard the sailboat as a result.

In my view, studying a foreign language while traveling is one of the most rewarding ways to see the world since it allows you to broaden your horizons intellectually while also immersing yourself in the local culture. There is so much more to discover in Sicily, and I am certain that I will return.

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